The Security Council is the most important political body of the United Nations. If you consider the council uncommunicative and dominated by the great powers, and if you search for ways to improve its democratic qualities without amending the UN Charter, you have to look at the rules of procedure of the council and how they are applied. You have to find out to what extent the decision-making processes are transparent and how much they allow for information and advice from non-council member states and nongovernmental organizations.
This is what Loraine Sievers and Sam Daws do in the fourth, newly revised and thoroughly updated edition of “The Procedure of the UN Security Council” — they shed light on the intricacies of council procedures. Like its preceding editions, the book successfully makes the council’s work plain to interested readers, be it scholar, student, diplomat or journalist. It’s a surprisingly uncomplicated, highly readable book, compared with the usual scholarly works on the UN, written in academic jargon.
The tradition for such a council guide was started by the dedicated and brilliant Sydney Bailey (1916-1995), a British freelance writer, consultant, diplomat and self-taught political scientist, who became a pioneer in 1975 by looking closely at the council’s work in writing the first edition of “The Procedure of the UN Security Council.” He explained in clear language the internal rules and workings through illustrative cases from the political practice, supplemented by extensive coverage and documentation of UN sources. The book was welcomed by its readers as helpful and enlightening; many council delegates used it as a valuable reference source. In 1988, Bailey published the second edition; he wrote the third edition, which came out in 1998, with Sam Daws, a British UN scholar, consultant and former UN official.
The latest edition has been written by Daws and an American UN expert, Loraine Sievers, who was a longtime UN official, having served as chief of the Security Council Secretariat branch and as a Secretariat expert in the council’s working group on the reform of its working methods.
The preceding editions provided ample evidence of the council’s ability to adapt its debating and decision-making procedures to the changing political conditions: as the first two editions proved, the flexibility in using its procedures allowed the council during the Cold War to search for face-saving compromises out of the media limelight in (closed) informal consultations, not provided for in the Charter and its rules of procedure. Yet the inner workings enabling the (modest) successes remained unnoticed to most people outside the council chamber because of the complexity of the rules and the council informing nonmember states and the public rarely and sparingly.
The third edition, published in 1998, revealed a trend for the first effective reforms in the 1990s: in reaction to the end of the Cold War and the rapprochement of the superpowers, the council reached an agreement on a large number of political conflicts, resulting in many new UN peacekeeping missions. In terms of its working methods, that meant an increasing need for informal reforms. To get the necessary information as well as sufficient political support for carrying out its peacekeeping decisions, the council gradually increased the participation of troop-contributing countries (TCC) and nongovernmental organizations through informal TCC meetings and Arria-formula meetings, respectively.
It also improved its information policy, for example, by briefing nonmember countries about council issues, including draft texts, and by briefing the press, both done by the council president (a monthly rotating position). The practice of briefing the press, of course, can be inconsistent, depending on which country in the council is holding the presidential seat. But the value of these encounters lies in their being used at all. All these reform steps were achieved through informal changes of the council’s working methods, implying a departure from its former policy of secrecy.
The latest edition gives ample evidence of many additional steps in this direction, amounting to a true reform. Based on the insider knowledge of Sievers and on (confidential) information from diplomats and Secretariat officials, the authors draw a detailed picture of the far-reaching changes in the working methods of the council since 2000, put through by elected members against the hesitating attitudes of the permanent five members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States).
The council is now much more democratic in its practice than it used to be: it informs nonmember states and the media extensively. More significantly, it uses a set of different formal and informal meeting formats, granting access to noncouncil groups. The nonmember states, for example, can listen in on formal open council meetings about its information-gathering activities, or “briefings,” and are entitled to speak in “thematic debates” (also an open forum) on topics such as the reform of the working methods. Since 2001, troop-contributing countries can participate (with the right to speak) even in closed council meetings on peacekeeping missions.
To give these changes some binding force despite their informal nature, the reform steps have been put down in writing in two comprehensive notes of the council president (S/2006/507 and S/2010/507), with the consent of all council members.
The book is supplemented with detailed references, informative tables and charts and a select bibliography. The current edition has the merit of drawing the attention of UN scholars and politically interested people worldwide to the important informal reform process of the Security Council that has been taking place since the early 1990s, and with more emphasis since 2000. These changes have remained largely unnoticed or, if noticed, have been underestimated in their significance so far, as “the Council’s procedures and working methods are truly complex and . . . not easily grasped,” Sievers and Daws confirm in the book.
The book is — like its predecessors — a unique source of information. It is highly recommended to all interested in the UN, as appreciating the important changes can play a key role in building support for the council’s work in maintaining international peace.
“The Procedure of the UN Security Council,” Fourth Edition, by Loraine Sievers and Sam Daws; 9780199685295
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Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (www.forschungskreis-vereinte-nationen.de).